- Only Human
What follows is an excerpt from Autodrive, a work of literary fiction that speculates on a future characterized by the advent of automotive intelligence. The work combines argumentation and allegory, social criticism and satire, philosophical dialogue and adventure-fantasy, in order to unsettle the stylistic unity of conventional form, move between genres and points of view, pursue eccentric alliances, facilitate insights that might not be available through analysis alone. This version is comprised of a series of excerpts from various sections of the fiction.
The Great Mural of the Highways stretches across the eastern periphery of the truck stop on a barrier wall of epic proportions, its height reminiscent of the great fortification systems of antiquity, its length stretching further than the eye can see. The various sections, notwithstanding their many inaccuracies, aim to portray a grand narrative, an overarching chronicle of late modernity as seen from the emergence of the highway network, from the first paved routes built in the early twentieth century to the present day.
The mural is about to be recognized for its contribution to national heritage, awarded the National Historical Landmark distinction it has long sought. The parent company is making every effort to maximize the promotional impact of the honor. It has commissioned a film crew to produce a livestream experience of the day's events, commencing with a tour of the mural, already underway, and concluding with the public ceremony to follow. A flatbed truck is being used to ferry the group of truck stop clientele who appear on camera, its empty rear aluminum deck providing the stage. That is where I come in. I have been hired to lend the illusion that the truck is manually driven.
A burst of sound from on high causes heads to collectively crane skyward: it is a group of protestors who have occupied the elevated observation deck, inveighing against the rise of automotive robotics through a bullhorn. They, like the other demonstrators assembled on this day, are eager to reach the broader audience the event accords them. Decrying the highway initiatives that exclude the unequipped, bundle inequity into their design. Pave over the asymmetry they avoid attending to, the complications they do not make workable, the inequities they fail to resolve.
For the presenter hired to lead the tour, the demand to share the stage has become intolerable, an incursion that threatens the terms of the narrative contract. He came prepared to address a remote audience, not one present [End Page 314] on the platform with him. His indignation has only intensified as we have gotten underway and the expanding mass of attendees encroaches on his space. Although they stand right in front of him on the truck platform, he speaks of them indirectly, as if the individuals on whose behalf he was purporting to speak were not the same ones he was actually speaking to. I can sense him very clearly on the deck right behind me, his image more detailed as he backs up, framed by the rear window when I crane my neck to glance back, or cropped by the wide-angle mirrors whenever I check them. His narration, generally forceful and abrasive, shakes the cabin. The pointer that he uses to indicate the relevant details on the sections of the mural, a flexible rod of thin metal that resembles a whip antenna, occasionally punctuates his oratory with a strike against the cabin wall, producing a sharp lashing sound whose crisp, rigid immediacy makes the device seem stiffer, like a crop. I watch him closely as he sweeps it briskly between the points of reference on the mural and the group of attendees. Often pausing in the interim to aim it skyward. He holds the instrument aloft, as if awaiting reception, then lowers it back toward the group as he conveys his lines, wobbling it up and down in time with the beat of his delivery.
It was the construction of new thoroughfares, he is saying, that unlocked the automobile's potential in the first place. Fueling the rise of suburbs, revolutionizing the shipment of freight, increasing personal freedom, creating new industries and jobs.